Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (2011)

Director: Joseph Dorman

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Regular Ferdy on Films readers will know of my ongoing struggle with my Jewish heritage and identity. An atheist, I nonetheless feel an attachment, if not to my religion, then to the unique cultural background of Ashkenazi Jewry that I have only a glancing knowledge of through my first-generation American parents and relatives. I become impatient with those whose pity for the Ashkenazi Jews who perished in the Holocaust tends to cast Jews as eternal victims. Yet, my awareness of Jewish vulnerability through the centuries is entwined with my own family history—I lost the whole Polish branch of my family in Auschwitz, and my mother used to tell me stories about her “skinny bubbie,” who used to share her childhood bed and scream in her sleep as she warded off the shadows cast by the pogroms she suffered in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe. Try as I might, I have found myself too far removed in time and temperment from the seminal experiences that defined modern Jewry to really make sense of what it means to me to be Jewish.

That changed, swiftly and painfully, as I watched the unlikely documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. I say unlikely because the film’s subject, Sholem Rabinovitz, aka Sholem Aleichem, born and raised in a Jewish shtetl under Tsarist rule, lived from 1859 to mid 1916—definitely not in the sweet spot for a cinematic documentary. That director Joseph Dorman not only decided to go ahead anyway, but also found some strategies to help bring this story alive has resulted in a film that packs an emotional wallop.

Sholem Aleichem is the nom de plume and persona of the most famous Yiddish writer in the world, as well as the person who made writing in Yiddish acceptable. Writing in Yiddish, he said, was meshugeh (crazy). Jewish writers felt that only Hebrew was proper, and Sholem Rabinovitz was an admirer of the great Russian literature of his time, particularly Tolstoy and Turgenev, and aspired to its heights. Yet, Yiddish was the language of his heart and the only suitable way to address his subject matter. Through his countless short stories and novels, he became the chronicler of shtetl life and ushered in a golden age of Yiddish expression that even won favor in the atheist and anti-Semitic Soviet Union, until Stalin’s paranoia brought it to an abrupt and tragic end in the 1950s.

Even if you have never read a word by Sholem Aleichem, you know his most famous creation—Tevye the Dairyman. This pious character confused by changes to his traditional way of life was the center around which composer Jerry Bock, playwright Joseph Stein, and lyricist Sheldon Harnick built the wildly popular musical Fiddler on the Roof, often using the language of the writer himself to tell the story. Dorman begins his documentary with a clip from the 1971 film of the musical, with Topol dancing down a dirt road singing “Tradition.” I doubt anyone who chooses to see this film needed this prompt about Sholem Aleichem as a figure of wide significance, but Dorman cleverly returns to this film and an earlier Yiddish version from 1939 to show how alterations to the original story reveal how the Jewish community was redefining itself over time.

The life and times of Rabinovitz are recounted with a surprising thoroughness for a 93-minute film. Rabinovitz’s childhood in the Pale was a happy one—his father was prosperous, and Sholem felt confident and accepted as a result. Unfortunately, his father was swindled by a business partner, and the Rabinovitz family lost everything; at age 13, Sholem also lost his mother in a cholera epidemic. His father found a new woman, but afraid to reveal that he had 12 children, he parceled them out to relatives and recalled them to his home slowly during the first year of his second marriage. Sholem’s stepmother seems to have been a shrew, but she was a great source of epithets, which he gathered into a glossary of curses that would serve him well when he became a writer.

As a young man, he was hired to tutor the only daughter of a wealthy Jewish land owner. When the pair fell in love, Sholem was dismissed. He and Olga eloped after Sholem found steady work and settled in Kiev; their financial circumstances became more secure after Olga’s father died and left her his fortune. Nonetheless, Sholem was attracted to the thrills of playing the stock market and ended up losing everything, declaring bankruptcy, and fleeing the country. His mother-in-law agreed to settle his debts so that he could return to Kiev, but she never spoke to him again.

To support his large family, he wrote short stories at the rate of one or two a week for publication in the Yiddish newspapers that spread his fame throughout the world. At the same time, Jews were scapegoated after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, with vicious pogroms taking lives, destroying property, and sending frightened Jews scattering out of the Pale. In 1905, Sholem and his family went into hiding for three days to escape a pogrom in Kiev; he left for the United States with his wife and youngest son soon after, where he was determined to be a successful playwright of the Yiddish theatre. Instead, his plays were scathingly attacked by young Jews who could not relate to his tales of the shtetl, and he left New York, vowing never to return. A peripatetic life in Western Europe would be his lot until he was forced to flee Germany when World War I broke out; he reluctantly had to return to New York, where he died. His funeral was the largest for a private citizen the city—and the country—had ever known, with his coffin wheeled through every Jewish neighborhood in the city.

We get this chronology, but it is filtered through Sholem Aleichem’s writing. Dorman chooses still photos of two nameless Jews to stand in for Sholem Aleichem’s first enduring characters, Menahem-Mendl and Sheineh-Sheindl, as actors narrate bits of the stories he wrote. Menahem-Mendl and Sheineh-Sheindl are a married couple whose outlooks on life are amusingly opposed. Menahem-Mendl is a cockeyed optimist who has left his wife and family back in the shtetl to make his fortune in the big city. Loaded with enthusiasm, he writes of one great business venture after another, rarely mentioning that they never pan out, while his wife’s letters are filled with skepticism and scolding even as she tries to prop him up in his darkest hours. It’s clear that the couple has more than a few parallels with Sholem and Olga, but they face their hardships with the kind of humor that forms the subtitle of Dorman’s documentary.

The commentary about Tevye zeroes in on the changing attitudes to marriage among modern Jews. Tevye acquiesces to his first daughter Tzeitel’s rejection of the husband he has chosen for her so that she can marry for love. He speaks constantly of how unfair it is that some people can be rich simply because of who they are or what they are (Russian) while he has to slave to eke out a living. His second daughter Hodel takes his harmless complaints seriously and runs off with a Marxist, which stands as a lesson that children will listen to their parents but may act in ways their parents never intended. Third daughter Chava’s break from tradition is too much for Tevye. When she marries a Russian and must, by law, convert to Christianity, Tevye sits shiva for her and refuses to speak with her again. Interestingly, the 1939 film Tevya shows her Russian suitor to be a fine young man, and the 1971 film actually has Tevye break his silence to say “And may God be with you” to the couple as the entire town prepares to leave the Pale. The changes in this story show the gradual acceptance of intermarriage, and underlines the rapid transformation of the Ashkenazi Jewish community in trying to adapt to new countries and customs.

The most poignant parts of this film are also the most personal for me. Dorman makes use of still photos of Jews killed by the pogroms that are perhaps more shocking than any from the Holocaust—bodies laid out side by side include small children and even a couple of infants. “Tales of a Thousand and One Nights,” called a precursor to Holocaust literature, communicates the horrors of the pogroms suffered by its main character, who is on board a refugee ship in the North Sea with the character Sholem Aleichem as they try to find safety in the United States. These pogroms are the reason I was born an American and one of the reasons that the way of life my grandparents and great-grandparents knew was extinguished. And that is the second poignant part of the film, the realization by Jews who left the Pale and adopted different ways of life for themselves and their children that they were now the only link to a murdered way of life. If shtetl values and traditions were to be preserved, these Jews would have to take up the mantle. Sadly, even Sholem Rabinovitz’s children grew up speaking and reading Russian, with no knowledge of lowly Yiddish. This universal language of Jewry, which my parents always called “Jewish” (a much better name for it), is struggling for survival.

Dorman used what little film exists of shtetl life and photos to illustrate both Sholem’s life and his stories. He offers a vocal track of Sholem reading from one of his stories while on his standing-room-only lecture tours, and his expressive Yiddish is music to my ears, a reminder of the occasional pepper my parents and relatives would use to flavor their speech. Yiddish scholars Hillel Halkin, Dan Miron, David Roskies, and Ruth Wisse, as well Sholem’s granddaughter, writer Bel Kaufman, provide informative and spirited commentary that puts Sholem Aleichem’s legacy into a larger context without skirting the pleasures he offered his millions of fans. Reading aloud the new Sholem Aleichem story in the Jewish newspapers that were delivered on Friday became a Sabbath ritual in many, many Jewish homes. It’s a tradition Tevye might not have approved of, but one I would love to see resurrected, a mitzvah to the next generation.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    4th/09/2011 to 9:34 pm

    Actually the pogroms were present in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and set in motion the transient nature of the musical’s central characters. You make an excellent sociological, literary, political and artistic case for the significance of this very fine documentary (which I saw two weeks ago) and rightly spend time discussing the film’s most vital component, and that is Aleichem as the pivotal figure in the Yiddish literary movement. Tevye the Milkman too of course is Aleichem’s lasting claim to fame, and FIDDLER is beloved worldwide. You do a splendid job in the opening paragraph and even at the conclusion in weaving your own personal connection and inherent attraction to this material, which greatly enhances the presentation.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/09/2011 to 9:59 pm

    Sam – You were the person who put me on alert that this film existed, and I noted it as a must-see when it opened here. I would like to thank you for that because this film was a personally crucial one for me. And yes, of course, Sholem wrote about pogroms well before his voyage to America near the end of his life. It was of great interest to me that his story was viewed as proto-Holocaust literature. Indeed, I heard more about pogroms when I was growing up than I did about Nazis. My family still had memories of the pogroms, whereas I knew no Holocaust survivors who were friends or relatives.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    5th/09/2011 to 11:02 am

    Not available on Netfix, at least not yet.
    I didn’t know that Bel Kaufman was Sholem Aleichem’s grand-daughter. You’ve probably see this article.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/09/2011 to 11:14 am

    Peter – I had not seen that article. Thanks for the link. Kaufman was interviewed a few years ago for the film, judging by how she looks now. Wisse also was interviewed on two separate occasions. It’s a little startling to see her with brown hair in one part and longer, grey hair and deepened lines on her face in another.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    5th/09/2011 to 2:57 pm

    It wasn’t until I was much older and we were doing ancestry research, that I found out my maternal grandmother, who had died quite young in the Depression Era, was Jewish. I’m old enough to have grown up when ancestry was just word of mouth, and very little had been said all those years. Frankly, I was little pissed no one in my WASPy family had ever brought it up, but ancestry in my family had a lot “open” secrets among the adults, on both sides – like many families, later wives are always careful about keeping their pre-eminence in the family histories, some more than others. Not much is known about her other than names on a family tree going back quite a ways on the maternal side in the New World, not a damned thing on the paternal side, and my mother never really had contact with her mother’s family – we speculate it wasn’t an approved marriage for both sides. She’s now one of the projects in our research, so I hope to eventually know as much of her story as possible. It actually has changed my thinking about a lot things, especially when I was growing up – things look a little different now. I’ll have to catch this film, for sure.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/09/2011 to 3:23 pm

    Van – Someone found my family while researching her family tree and provided me with a picture of my paternal grandfather from when he was in the Canadian army. I still have that picture hanging on my wall. I hope you turn up some treasures like that as well.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    5th/09/2011 to 4:50 pm

    I think the deliberate dis-remembering of people is the real crime of passion, even at a low-key, oh-so-patrician level – it’s inconceivable to me why, and I know times change and things are always situational, but why so much so that my grandmother became less than a name even, just a cipher for the great portion of the family? We have one pic from her past, but not of her, sadly. I see the hand of suppression in the background, it’s depressing to recognize that in one’s family.

  • RJ Spector spoke:
    8th/01/2012 to 8:45 pm

    Many of us American Jews are painfully aware of how the Ashkenazic past has been buried aside from the Holocaust story, and of how ignorant we are of even our fairly recent forebears’ culture. One way to reconnect is via the surviving books and films, and the best way into the former might lead through the National Yiddish Book Center, which started with the effort to simply save Yiddish books from destruction. You might find it interesting:

    And thank you indeed for alerting me to this film on Sholem Aleichem and his times.

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